Going au naturale : 11 drug-free ways to treat ADHD
If you’ve been diagnosed with ADHD or you know someone who has, you know that the treatment options look a bit different for each person.
Depending on your age, your symptoms, and your body’s reaction to medication, you might choose to skip traditional medication and opt for natural treatments. Luckily, there are several promising natural options for treating the disorder in adults and children.
Just remember to consult your doctor before making any changes to your current treatment plan. Home remedies are great, but they’re not a replacement for a doctor-prescribed course of treatment. For some people, they may even be harmful.
You’ve got my attention ADHD is more than just a stereotype about someone’s short attention span going haywire. It makes it harder to focus and complete tasks on a schedule — something most of us have to do every day at work or school — which makes it difficult to be productive. It can also make you forgetful, less than great at organization, and prone to losing things.
In children, it can result in constant fidgeting, moving around, or behavior that others might interpret as rowdy (aka the kid who seems to think “puzzle hour” is code for WWE SmackDown). In adults, ADHD causes impatience and restlessness, which make concentration difficult. Sometimes an adult with ADHD may be described as “driven by a motor” (constantly moving or on the go). Adults with ADHD might also be frequent hand and foot tappers who thrive on starting projects but have trouble finishing them.
Going au naturale: 11 drug-free ways to treat ADHD
If you’re looking to treat ADHD without meds, here are some science-backed alternatives to add to your daily routine (just keep in mind that these aren’t FDA-approved).
The effects of these treatments are mild compared with those of prescription medication. Still, when combined with a healthy overall lifestyle, they may provide some relief.
1. Fish oil
Omega-3 fatty acids are known for their brain-boosting qualities, and there are plenty of reasons why they make a great addition to a healthy diet. But as it turns out, they may also be useful in lessening symptoms of ADHD.
Research has shown that omega-3s affect serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain and lessen oxidative stress, which sometimes occurs in people with ADHD.
Fish oil pills are the easiest way to add concentrated amounts of omega-3s to your diet. If you’d like to try them, you can get some here. You can also up your omega-3 intake by eating more seafood.
Not a fan of waiting in line at the grocery store? Sitka Salmon Shares will deliver sustainable, wild-caught fish from independent Alaskan fishers right to your door. (Plus, if you use code Greatist19 at checkout, you’ll get an extra $25 off.)
Did you know sleep deprivation affects everything from your memory to your digestive system? It’s well-known that lack of sleep can take a serious toll on mental and physical health. In people with ADHD, poor sleep can make it harder to pay attention.
One way to manage sleep issues naturally is to take melatonin every night before you hit the pillow. It’s a hormone your body naturally produces to regulate your shut-eye, and when your sleep cycle gets messed up, your melatonin levels might also be out of whack.
Taking a melatonin supplement can help you get those levels back on a normal schedule.
It’s not clear whether melatonin has any other effects on ADHD symptoms. And while melatonin is safe for both adults and children in the short term, not as much is known about long-term use.
Try starting with a very low dose (as low as 0.2 milligrams) and working your way up to figure out your ideal amount to take each night.
If you think a melatonin supplement could help you catch some better Zzz’s, get one here.
3. Light therapy
Exposing your body to light during the day and darkness at night is essential to keeping your circadian rhythms in check — which, as we know, can help you ward off the negative effects of poor sleep.
Even better, an open trial of ADHD patients found that bright light therapy in the morning improved participants’ moods and helped reduce their core ADHD symptoms.
If you live or work in an environment without consistent access to sunlight (maybe you work the night shift), you could benefit from adding light therapy to your morning routine (or using it whenever you typically wake up).
Light therapy boxes are commonly used to treat Major Depressive Disorder with a Seasonal Pattern (formerly known as seasonal affective disorder), and they’re available online.
They give your body a sunlight boost in the morning, which will help you fall asleep more easily at night. If you have to sleep while it’s light outside, try using an eye mask to simulate darkness.
This mineral, found in meat, legumes, seeds, nuts, and other foods, bolsters your immune system and helps your body make proteins to support cell membrane growth.
Interestingly, zinc deficiency has similar symptoms to ADHD: inattention, impaired cognitive development, and fidgety behavior. But zinc deficiency is not directly correlated with ADHD symptoms.
If your zinc levels are normal, this treatment probably won’t do much for you. But if you or your child is zinc deficient (which could be more likely if you’re vegetarian or vegan), taking a zinc supplement could lessen your hyperactivity symptoms.
Be sure to talk with your doctor before starting to take a supplement, because having too much zinc in your system can cause problems, too. If your doctor gives you the green light, get a zinc supplement here.
Just like zinc supplements, magnesium supplements are helpful only for people who experience magnesium deficiency.
But a 2017 study of children with ADHD found that more than 70 percent of them experienced magnesium deficiency and therefore benefited from taking magnesium supplements.
6. Dietary changes
Research has shown that a diet low in processed foods and chemicals, with an emphasis on avoiding food allergens, can help lessen symptoms of ADHD in people of all ages.
If you’ve never paid much attention to your body’s reactions to different foods, you might consider trying an elimination diet to figure out what you’re sensitive to (your dietitian or doctor can help with this).
Even if you don’t limit specific foods, try to eat a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, fish, legumes, and whole grains and low in sugar, artificial sweeteners, nitrates, and dyes.
The Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes whole, colorful, fresh foods and lots of fish (remember those omega-3s?), is a good place to start if you’re looking to change your diet for the better. Plus, it could help manage your ADHD.
7. Behavioral therapy
For young children, whose brains and behaviors are especially malleable, behavioral therapy can help lessen disruptive tendencies.
This can be done with a licensed therapist who specializes in behavioral therapy, and it will typically involve parents and kids attending sessions together.
The professional will teach you how to reinforce positive behaviors and create structure, which can help your little one stay calm and productive.
Adults with ADHD can also benefit from behavioral therapy, but it looks a little different.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of mental health treatment that teaches people to focus on the present moment. It’s most often used to treat anxiety and depression, which can be side effects of ADHD in adults.
Note that the research on CBT as a specific treatment for ADHD is still in early stages, but its positive effect on anxiety disorders is well-known. If you want to find out whether CBT is right for you, seek out a therapist with a background in helping people with ADHD.
It’s no secret that probiotics have a ton of health benefits, from digestion-boosting powers to allergy relief. Now, science is increasingly pointing to probiotics as an aid for various mental health conditions.
While the research linking probiotics to ADHD treatment is still in early stages, several studies have shown promising effects. Cultivating a healthy gut microbiome can promote a vibrant and high-functioning brain.
Sometimes there’s nothing better than a good sweat to clear your mind and calm you down.
The research is limited, but preliminary studies suggest a connection between an active lifestyle and ADHD symptom relief, especially in children. Exercise may promote brain development and function, which can help children with ADHD focus better.
10. Essential oils
To be clear, research hasn’t borne out that essential oils have a significant effect on ADHD symptoms. But some people use them regularly and swear by their positive effects.
A few to try if you’re interested: vetiver, cedarwood, and lavender, all of which are purported to reduce anxiety and promote a sense of calm.
11. Kinda-sorta treatments
Studies have shown several other natural remedies to be useful in treating ADHD, but the science is iffy about their overall effectiveness. St. John’s wort, ginseng, and pine bark extract are just a few.
If you haven’t found relief through other options, these could be worth trying, but their effects will likely be mild. Always start slowly when trying any new vitamin or herb so you can measure its effects on your body.
When in doubt, ask your doctor or dietitian to guide you through the proper protocol for starting a new treatment.
Triggers to avoid
Sometimes managing ADHD is a matter of simply avoiding certain substances and behaviors. Here are five common triggers:
1. Food dyes and artificial coloring This is a tough one, since food dyes are in just about everything these days, but a handful of studies have linked consumption of these dyes to increased hyperactivity in children. Considering that we eat roughly four times the amount of food dyes that we did in the ’50s, it’s probably best to try to ditch the coloring in your next batch of sugar cookies.
2. Gluten (but only if you’re already sensitive to it) More research is needed, but one study found that people with celiac disease and ADHD saw significant improvement in their ADHD symptoms when sticking to a gluten-free diet. The key is to monitor any food sensitivities and make sure you’re eating a diet that gives your body what it needs. Getting all the right vitamins and minerals and ditching the foods that don’t agree with your body can help you keep your ADHD symptoms under control.
3. High or low blood sugar While these studies focus on children, research has found that consumption of sugary foods and beverages can increase hyperactivity and make it harder to pay attention. On the other hand, low blood sugar can mimic the symptoms of ADHD. Your best bet is to keep your blood sugar level in the Goldilocks zone to keep your focus razor-sharp.
4. Technology Technology may have put a person on the moon and brought streaming into your home, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to seek out some distance. One study found that too much digital time can increase impulsivity, hyperactivity, and inattention in teens. You don’t have to break up with your phone, but maybe slot in some screen-free time every so often (especially before bed).
5. Stress No one actively seeks out stress, and being told to avoid it might actually feel stressful. Your ADHD itself could be the source of your stress, especially if your symptoms are leading to missed deadlines and a massive pileup of projects and to-dos.
According to one study, stress is even powerful enough to make healthy adults start to have ADHD symptoms. Knowing all that, it’s hard not to want to crawl under your desk and cry, Robin Scherbatsky-style.
Take a deep breath and ommm with us for a second, though, because you’ve totally got this (as we hope this article proves).
Schedule a yoga class, light a lavender candle, take a few moments of silence to reset, take a nap, or plan a coffee date with a trusted friend you can confide in and who makes you laugh. (FYI, the stress-busting powers of all these activities are backed by research!)
And possibly most important: Forgive yourself for getting overwhelmed or giving in to procrastination. You’re only human, and you deserve a dang break.